MONROVIA, Liberia – Liberian officials fear Ebola could soon spread through the capital's largest slum after residents raided a quarantine center for suspected patients and took items including blood-stained sheets and mattresses.
The violence in the West Point slum occurred late Saturday and was led by residents angry that patients were brought to the holding center from other parts of Monrovia, Tolbert Nyenswah, assistant health minister, said Sunday.
Up to 30 patients were staying at the center and many of them fled at the time of the raid, said Nyenswah. Once they are located they will be transferred to the Ebola center at Monrovia's largest hospital, he said.
West Point residents went on a "looting spree," stealing items from the clinic that were likely infected, said a senior police official, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the press. The residents took medical equipment and mattresses and sheets that had bloodstains, he said.
"All between the houses you could see people fleeing with items looted from the patients," the official said, adding that he now feared "the whole of West Point will be infected."
Some of the looted items were visibly stained with blood, vomit and excrement, said Richard Kieh, who lives in the area.
The incident creates a new challenge for Liberian health officials who were already struggling to contain the outbreak.
Liberian police restored order to the West Point neighborhood Sunday. Sitting on land between the Montserrado River and the Atlantic Ocean, West Point is home to at least 50,000 people, according to a 2012 survey.
Distrust of government runs high in West Point, with rumors regularly circulating that the government plans to clear the slum out entirely.
Though there had been talk of putting West Point under quarantine should Ebola break out there, assistant health minister Nyenswah said Sunday no such step has been taken. "West Point is not yet quarantined as being reported," he said.
Ebola has killed 1,145 people in West Africa, including 413 in Liberia, according to the World Health Organization.
Other countries across Africa are grappling to prevent Ebola's spread with travel restrictions, suspensions of airline flights, public health messages and quarantines.
Nigeria appears to be making progress in containing the disease. The country has 12 confirmed cases of Ebola, all of which stem from direct contact with the Liberian-American man who flew to Nigeria late last month while ill. He infected several health workers before dying.
Since then three others have died in Nigeria from Ebola, according to figures released over the weekend.
One Nigerian doctor has survived the disease and was sent home Saturday night and five others confirmed with Ebola have almost fully recovered, said the Health Minister Onyebuchi Chukwu in a statement Saturday night.
The most important part of containing the disease is to track all those who had contact with Ebola patients and to closely monitor them in order to quarantine if they show any symptoms. Nigeria had 242 people under surveillance but now 61 have been cleared and released, after completing the 21-day period without showing any signs of Ebola, said the health ministry.
In East Africa, Kenya will bar passengers traveling from the three West African countries badly hit by the Ebola outbreak. The suspension is effective midnight Tuesday for all ports of entry for people traveling from or through Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, said Kenya's Health Ministry. Nigeria was not included in the ban, which also allows entry to health professionals and Kenyans returning from those countries.
Following the government's announcement Saturday, Kenya Airways said it would suspend flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone. Kenya Airways, a major transport provider in Africa flies more than 70 flights a week to West Africa.
Several airlines have already suspended flights to Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, including British Airways, Emirates Airlines, Arik Air and ASKY Airlines.
Officials in Cameroon, which borders Nigeria, announced Friday it would suspend all flights from all four Ebola-affected countries. Korean Air announced on Thursday it would temporarily halt its service to Kenya despite the fact there are no cases of Ebola in the country.